Before the year ends, the contentious Line 3 crude oil pipeline should be complete. That’s the timeline project developer Enbridge has in mind—unless Indigenous advocates and leaders succeed in stopping it. Line 3, a $4 billion tar sands expansion project from Alberta, Canada, to Wisconsin, would transport 760,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
The environmental and climate risks the project poses are driving much of the opposition, but there’s more. In fact, a more immediate and urgent threat than an oil spill or increased carbon emissions is sexual violence. That’s become a focal point among water protectors and their cries to kill the black snake, as they often refer to oil pipelines.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re continuing to cover the Line 3 resistance. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. The frontlines are growing desperate to stop the expansion of the 1,097-mile-long pipeline. They’re calling for allies to join them before time runs out.
Taysha Martineau dresses their three daughters every morning. It’s not because the girls can’t dress themselves, but Martineau needs to know exactly what they’re wearing when they leave the house—just in case they don’t make it back home. More than 5,700 Indigenous women, girls, and gender non-conforming folks have been reported missing in the U.S. as of 2016.
“When a relative is missing, you need to have a description of them,” said Martineau, a member of the Fond du Lac Band in northern Minnesota. “That’s something I have to do as an Indigenous mother every single day. That’s a fear Indigenous women face all across Turtle Island.”
This fear is why they got involved in anti-pipeline efforts in the first place. Research has linked resource extraction projects to increased crime, including sex trafficking. The public is already seeing this unfold in Minnesota. At the end of June, local and state law enforcement arrested six men in a human trafficking sting operation where they responded to an online advertisement for sex. Two of those men were working on Line 3, reported MPR News. Back in February, a similar operation led to the arrests of two other men working on the project. That time, they were arrested for soliciting sex from someone believed to be a minor.
“Enbridge has zero tolerance for illegal and exploitative behavior,” said Enbridge Communications Specialist Juli Kellner in an email. The company has conducted human trafficking awareness trainings for more than 11,000 workers involved in the project, but that won’t stop communities from advocating against Line 3. They were vulnerable long before these workers arrived and don’t want further exposures to harm. It’s hard to imagine how an oil and gas company can help.
“I don’t hold any hope that outside forces are going to come in here and save us,” Martineau said. “We keep us safe. We patrol our communities. We find our women, and there’s not much justice for us. There’s just us.”
Martineau means that literally. In 2016, they helped found Gitchigumi Scouts, an Indigenous-led group in Minnesota dedicated to searching for missing and murdered relatives. Martineau didn’t stop there. Earlier this year, they founded Camp Migizi, an Indigenous queer collective on the frontlines of the Line 3 battle.
“We realized that we could sit at home and be scared,” Martineau said, “or we could put ourselves on the line to try and help lower these statistics.”
The statistics out there are sobering: Native American women experience the highest homicide rate in the U.S. alongside Black women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In some U.S. counties, murder rates are over 10 times the national average, per a 2008 Department of Justice report. However, these are likely gross underestimates, said Kate Finn, the executive director of First Peoples Worldwide, an organization seated within the University of Colorado at Boulder focused on the relationship between business and Indigenous peoples.
“Data around sexual violence is difficult,” Finn said. “It’s difficult when people who are victims don’t want to report for fear of shame, for fear of being outed, for a lot of reasons. And we know that often when Alaska Native or American Indian women do report, either their identity isn’t written down or tracked, so it’s hard for data to be collected.”
The federal government has finally taken notice of this crisis. In April, Interior Sec. Deb Haaland (the first Indigenous person to hold this seat) announced the creation of the Missing and Murdered Unit within the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. The goal is to provide resources to properly investigate these cases, as well as build cross-agency collaboration.
“The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families,” said Sec. Haaland in a news release. “Whether it’s a missing family member or a homicide investigation, these efforts will be all hands-on deck.”
Historically, such investigations have been shrouded in the bureaucracy of tribal and non-tribal affairs. Tribal police are supposed to handle crimes that occur on tribal lands, but that quickly becomes complicated when a non-tribal person is involved. Tribal police don’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute non-Native people for criminal offenses. The case is then kicked to the federal government.
“The federal government, for many reasons, hasn’t been reliable in terms of picking up those investigations, solving those crimes, and bringing to justice and accountability the perpetrators,” Finn said. “That means that in that hole, there are a lot of Native women who have gone missing and then are found murdered or are murdered and their case is never followed up on.”
Unfortunately, these efforts don’t make Martineau feel too optimistic. They’re proud to see an Indigenous woman in a position of power but don’t believe in “playing the colonial game at the highest level possible.” Jason Goward, another member of the Fond du Lac Band, agrees with them. He started a local chapter of the American Indian Movement to help protect his community—whether that’s Black Lives Matter protesters or LGBTQIA+ advocates. Sometimes, he has to protect his people from the police themselves.
“We keep ourselves safe,” Goward said. “We patrol our own streets.”
That even includes monitoring local hotels where many pipeline workers are based. Chase Iron Eyes, the lead counsel for Lakota People’s Law Project, an Indigenous-led legal group, has seen the workforce himself in the hotel where he was staying during his recent visit to the camps. There’s still time for President Joe Biden to interfere and cancel the pipeline. “For President Biden to act like he can sit there and ignore this is irresponsible,” Iron Eyes said.
Releasing a proclamation on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day just won’t cut it. Not when lives are on the line. And water protectors won’t give up—not until Line 3 is stopped and mothers like Martineau can rest easy knowing their children are safe.
Please send any tips on sexual violence risks and abuses regarding Line 3 to Climate Editor Yessenia Funes at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are a survivor of this project’s harms, we especially want to hear from you. Your identity will be protected.